Maybe it’s just me, but a legitimate Top 10 contenders list is becoming increasingly difficult for me to make. I’ll be perfectly honest – at this point, I could probably cut this down to a Top 5 list – but for structure’s sake, I’ll continue on with a Top 10. After this past weekend’s preps, I can’t say I was overly impressed with anyone’s performances. That said, there were some performances that truly made me believe that certain horses just aren’t cut out to compete with the very best three-year olds. Add in the defections of Hear the Ghost and Flashback due to injuries, and this week’s Top 10 list looks very different. Here’s the list:
NEWCOMER(S): Uncaptured, Normandy Invasion, Java’s War, Govenor Charlie
OFF THE LIST: Hear the Ghost (injury), Flashback (injury), Power Broker (not enough points), Vyjack (questions about distance limitations)
1) Orb (Malibu Moon – Lady Liberty, by Unbridled)
As more and more preps go by, the more and more my confidence grows with Orb. At this point, the biggest question surrounding him has to do with his rider. It was already a question whether or not John Velazquez would choose to ride Verrazano or Orb – now there’s some uncertainty regarding his health following a spill at Aqueduct on Sunday. I think he believes Orb will be the better horse as the races get longer, but I won’t be shocked if Velazquez chooses to ride Verrazano because of his relationship with Todd Pletcher. If that’s the case, I’d expect Joel Rosario to regain the mount on Orb. As long as he stays healthy, I love Orb’s chances in the Kentucky Derby – regardless of who’s on his back in Louisville.
2) War Academy (Giant’s Causeway – Cabbage Key, by A.P. Indy)
War Academy being listed second on my list even though he has ZERO qualifying points is for a few reasons. First and foremost, other than Orb, I think War Academy has the best breeding that would suggest he will flourish with added ground. Secondly, none of the other three-year olds are really doing anything that has knocked me off my feet (overall I think this is a solid-to-very good crop of three-year olds…but there just isn’t a superstar among them…yet). War Academy needs to run either first or second this Saturday in the Arkansas Derby in order to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Based on his lone two turn effort, I think he has a huge shot to not only win (foreshadowing one of Saturday’s handicapping selections…), but to win emphatically. I don’t want to compare him to Bodemeister because they have very different running styles…but a Bodemeister-like performance in this year’s Arkansas Derby by War Academy would not shock me the slightest this weekend.
3) Lines of Battle (War Front – Black Speck, by Arch)
Many people are down on Lines of Battle for numerous reasons. Derby participants that race in Dubai have a dreadful record; the UAE Derby is contested over a Tapeta surface; the final clocking for the 1 3/16 race was woefully slow. In my opinion – none of that means ANYTHING. Lines of Battle has the breeding of an American dirt horse, not a European turf runner. The fact that this horse won over this surface has to be looked at as a major positive regarding his overall quality and ability. His breeding would suggest a wonderful blend of speed and stamina. I think people are making a huge mistake if they’re already writing off Lines of Battle as a potential contender.
4) Revolutionary (War Pass – Runup the Colors, by A.P. Indy)
He ran a much more professional race in the Louisiana Derby, which is a positive. On the flip side – he fought tooth and nail to hold of Mylute at the wire of this race, which I view as a negative. Add in the fact that I don’t think he was CLOSE to the best horse in that race (Palace Malice), and I just can’t get myself too excited about Revolutionary. His breeding makes him a factor at ten furlongs, but I’m still rather skeptical about Revolutionary.
5) Verrazano (More Than Ready – Enchanted Rock, by Giant’s Causeway)
Verrazano wins the Wood Memorial to remain undefeated and I drop him down my Top 10 list. Why? Because after Saturday, my suspicions of him have increased tenfold. All along I’ve been skeptical about his ability to stay ten furlongs…now I’m a bit skeptical about just how good he really is. There’s no question he’s talented, but I’m not sure he’s on par with Eskendereya, who trainer Todd Pletcher compared him to earlier last week. Verrazano had as easy a trip as he’s ever going to come across with his running style, and he had to work much harder than I think he should have in order to win the Wood. It’s hard for me to move him up on the list, especially since I don’t think he even ran the best race in the Wood…
6) Normandy Invasion (Tapit – Boston Lady, by Boston Harbor)
…this was the horse that ran the best race in the Wood. His closing style was compromised by a painfully slow pace, and yet he still made up a solid amount of ground coming down the stretch. In all honesty, I don’t love Normandy Invasion – he comes from that borderline fraudulent Remsen back in November at Aqueduct, he’s won exactly ONE race in his career, and I think he has a serious issue with “hanging” once he gets to the front. That said, he has the kind of running style that usually works very well in the Kentucky Derby. He should be a decent price in the 10-1/12-1 realm, so if you’re a fan, you’ll have your opportunity to make some coin.
7) Uncaptured (Lion Heart – Captivating, by Arch)
It’s taken me a while to come around on Uncaptured, but I think he’s a nice horse. He has some things going for him this Saturday in the Blue Grass Stakes, too. First, he’s running over a synthetic surface – he’s won four times over synthetics. Second, he’s making his second start off of a really long layoff – a progression should be expected Saturday. Third, and most important to me, he’s shown that he likes winning races. I don’t think that can be valued enough – some horses just seem to have a nose for the wire, and Uncaptured seems to be one of those horses. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s 2-2 at Churchill Downs in his young career…
8) Palace Malice (Curlin – Palace Rumor, by Royal Anthem)
I’m CONVINCED this is the most talented runner from the Louisiana Derby. He made an impressive middle move headed into the far turn, only to be completely blocked off turning for home. Edgar Prado looked to have plenty of horse underneath him – the only problem was he had nowhere to go. He’s running in the Blue Grass Stakes Saturday, and he’s going to have to perform if he wants to race in the Kentucky Derby. If he doesn’t end up getting the points necessary for the Derby, I think he could be a nice horse that targets the Preakness.
9) Java’s War (War Pass – Java, by Rainbow Quest)
He probably needs to finish in the money if he’s going to be running on the First Saturday in May. His late running style should work well with the long stretch that Churchill Downs has. I don’t view him as a realistic win candidate, but I think he could possibly “clunk up” and round out exotics on Derby day.
10) Govenor Charlie (Midnight Lute – Silverbulletway, by Storm Cat)
Another runner that I don’t think has a realistic shot at winning the Kentucky Derby, but there is no question that his win at Sunland Park was flashy. Who knows – maybe he’s just a freak and can be the real deal? I suspect he isn’t, and I believe his best success will come as a sprinter.
I did not include Goldencents or Vyjack on this list, and if you’ve seen my prior lists, you’ll know why. If I’m looking for a Derby horse, I want one that has a very strong pedigree that would suggest ten furlongs is within the realm of possibility. I don’t see that when I look at Goldencents, even though he won the Santa Anita Derby relatively easily. I believe he took advantage of a very speed favoring strip and carried his tactical speed all the way to the winner’s circle. A nice horse, but I don’t think he can stay the distance. Vyjack is another horse that I don’t believe has a chance of staying the ten furlongs. He was on the list the past few weeks, mainly because I wasn’t sold on the company he was keeping in his races. After an admirable third in the Wood, he showed that he is a talented racehorse – but even nine furlongs seems to be stretching it. If you can’t stay the distance, you can’t make the cut. A nice horse, but Vyjack is also off my Top 10.